The Elbert files: New life for old auto showroom
Friday, April 19, 2013 7:00 AM
Before architect Bryan Shiffler decided to move into the former Mitchell Transmission building at 1440 Locust St., he spent time parked in front of the 96-year-old building.
The John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park is across the street, and Shiffler wanted to see how it affected traffic. “I was amazed at how many people were in the sculpture park, but there was really no action on the south side of the street,” where his new office would be, the architect said.
So, he went ahead with the deal, and last week, Shiffler Associates Architects PLC’s eight employees moved into 2,250 square feet of space that was designed in 1917 as a showroom for Studebaker and Dodge cars.
I’ll tell you in a minute how the 64-year-old architect turned the former showroom into high-tech workspace.
But first you need some backstory. It starts seven years ago when a downtown landlord commandeered Shiffler’s office for an expansion by another tenant.
It worked out for the best, because Shiffler found what he believed was an ideal location: a two-story building directly across from the Des Moines Art Center at 4717 Grand Ave.
Shiffler had grown up in the neighborhood and was familiar with the property and its history: first, as a late-19th-century end-of-the-line trolley depot, and later as one of the first speculative commercial buildings away from downtown.
When the building was completed in 1916, the first upstairs tenant was a dance academy. The ground floor was home to a series of mom-and-pop groceries, including one managed by W.T. Dahl before he started his metro area chain of stores. Over the years, the building also housed offices and classrooms for St. Augustin’s Catholic Church and the National Pork Producers and a series of retail shops.
Shiffler bought the building in 2005, restored it and moved his 11-person architectural firm into the space where the dance academy had been.
The office was also near his west-side home, until a back injury prompted his family to move into downtown’s Brown-Camp Lofts a year ago.
Last fall, structural engineer John Rhodes asked if Shiffler might sell the building.
“John has always loved that building,” Shiffler said. “His family lives two blocks away, and on many a summer night, I would walk out to find him and his girls bicycling in my parking lot.”
At the time, Shiffler was preparing plans to convert the upper floors of the Mitchell Transmission building into lofts for Hubbell Realty Co., which had purchased it in 2005. The plan was to put a restaurant on the first floor, until Shiffler suggested that his business could take a chunk of the first floor.
Hubbell agreed. So, Shiffler sold the Grand Avenue building and began drawing up plans for his own new office.
“I wanted to do a space that looked ‘green,’” he said, because his firm has designed more Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certified “green” buildings than any other Iowa firm, including dozens of Kum & Go convenience stores.
“I found a gym floor in Waco, Texas,” that could be recycled as wall covering, he said.
Shiffler also left in place the hexagonal ceramic tile floor from 1917. “We tried to recapture everything we possibly could, including a cast-iron column that guards our reception desk,” he said.
The office space is open to encourage collaboration, and the showroom windows expose the workspace to outside scrutiny. That’s why Shiffler spent a day last fall parked in front of the building surveying traffic.
“I don’t think we’ll have a constant stream of walkers, but I will have one of the best views in the city,” looking directly into the Pappajohn Sculpture Park, he said.
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